Massively Overthinking: When an MMO has everything and so much of it

    
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Last week, when No Man’s Sky released its native Mac client, MOP’s Chris and I fell into a discussion about the game being so vast that even as players of the game we had forgotten some of the content systems that existed within it, like farming. The game pretty much has everything – and maybe that’s a problem.

“Is it weird that this game has so much stuff that it’s slipping our minds?” Chris mused. “I appreciate it’s a really weird and almost antithetical question to ask, but is there a point where a game puts in too much that it feels like possibly bloat or it’s not all fully baked? Is there a point where too much is simply too much? Where does that line begin?

We didn’t settle the question that day – although we suspect NMS itself handles it pretty well. Not all MMOs do, however, and so we thought we’d bring it to Massively Overthinking for discussion. When does an MMO or MMORPG have too much content, or so much content that it feels like bloat? Is it even possible to add too much? Or is there a point when maintaining it all – as a dev or a player – renders it pointless? What are some examples of MMOs that have so much that it might be too much – and what’s the solution? Let’s talk about MMOs that have everything and so much of it.

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): The only game that felt like it possibly had “too much” was Star Wars Galaxies, and to this day, it still feels like it wasn’t that big of a weak point. And for those of you who are new here, I am not someone who came on at the start but closer to its final days.

To keep this brief, I think the best solution any game has to bloat is decay. Have things expire. Don’t allow your economy/characters to bloat, so yes, in a sense, I am also suggesting permadeath (another rare feature SWG had, but not one I experienced in that game). Having expirations and combining that with random stat systems (both on dropped loot and in crafting, to a degree) means any system you have in the game is both flexible and transient. There’s always something for people to chase, and long-term stat bloat is a bit easier to tackle. It also means players need to focus on what they enjoy the most. Yes, people who love alts may be a bit upset, but at the same time, they can still experience a wide variety of gameplay and help purists better understand overlaps between systems (because, especially if you have a million systems, they should affect each other in some way).

One small thing was in the game’s TCG. Some cards included furniture, so even if you didn’t play the game, you might still collect cards. While most TCGs don’t have explicit decay, they do have sets that rotate into and out of play, or there’s simply stat/feature bloat that makes older sets less relevant. That’s a whole other story, but one I still think could benefit a bit from randomization, crafting, and yes, maybe even decay if done well in a virtual situation.

Andy McAdams: I think it’s hard to say that any game has ‘too much content,” but it can be overwhelming if the game doesn’t do a good job of saying, “Hey, here are all the things you can do.” I really enjoy EverQuest II and I love all the content, but it does an absolutely terrible job of communicating that something actually exists for me to do, why I might want to do it, and the impact of those actions. To a certain extent, I feel like Final Fantasy XIV is the same – I know there’s mountains of content there I haven’t played, but hell if I know what that content is, where to find it, how to start it, why I might care about it. I get the same “overwhelmed” vibe with all the different systems and content in NMS. But don’t get me wrong, I don’t want less. I just want a better way for me to know about that something’s there for me to do, why I might want to do it and the impact. Also, some indication of level appropriateness would be cool too since not everything happens at max level.

It still blows my mind that games from 15-20 years ago launched with more features and things to do in-game with few people, less funding, and less an idea WTF they were doing than today’s MMOs. A contemporary example of a small team with a huge spread of content is Project Gorgon: The game might not be the prettiest to look at, but that insanely small dev team has done demonstrably more than dev teams that are orders of magnitude larger.

So yeah, “too much to do” is not a problem that contemporary games have. I would argue they have the opposite problem, that they are so narrowly focused on such a small sliver of play that after 10 minutes in game, you’ve experienced most of it and it’s just rinse and repeat from there.

Ben Griggs (@braxwolf): I do think the number of systems that accumulate over time can work against an MMO. I lost interest in LOTRO around the same time it introduced the essence system for gear, which seemed like yet another unnecessary progression system to go along with leveling, legendary items, war steeds, deeds, and whatever else has been added since I stopped playing. It all becomes fairly overwhelming and can cause longtime players who otherwise love the game content to call it quits.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I’m an everythingbox fan. I want the game to be so big and have so many systems that it’s more than I can understand. I want to always be stumbling into something I’ve never seen or explored. It’s honestly what I expect out of a sandbox MMO. No Man’s Sky would be (and was) a whole lot less interesting to me without the years of stockpiled systems. Of course, if the studio isn’t doing a good job at communicating those systems for people who do want to learn them, that’s a serious issue (and one that exists in a lot of old games and makes it impossible for newbies to join in – Ultima Online comes immediately to mind).

So really, I think the problem here isn’t having a lot of systems or too many systems for any one player to grok. I think the problem is when a linear, level-based, expansion-driven themepark tries to layer in systems as if it’s a sandbox, but instead of building on them or integrating them into the existing permanent game, it then immediately abandons them, such that the systems become this weird leftover detritus attached to the early zones as noob traps for players who come later and wonder “what the heck is this” and “why is nobody talking about this” and “do I even really need to learn this?” That’s my gripe. It’s not “more” that might require a read through a wiki to understand; it’s “unsupported and unexplained more” that becomes a mess.

Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog): I should point out that when I was pondering this question, I wasn’t necessarily finding the idea to be a bad thing; indeed this is the epitome of a first-world problem. Still, having a multitude of things to do that lack a major sense of depth can be a little bit of an issue.

I’m immediately considering games like Elite Dangerous, with its “wide as an ocean, shallow as a puddle” selection of activities, or some of the secondary things in Final Fantasy XIV like the Grand Company leveling or its Lords of Verminion pet battles, which are fine – but the game wouldn’t suffer if they were removed.

I guess what I’m saying is that sometimes fewer features are more. Having a lot of stuff to do is great, and having a variety of activities is wonderful, but those additions should also be a little more thoughtful in their design, implementation, and expansion.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): This is definitely a problem with any expanded live service game. Devs and veterans may have the mental capacity to absorb all of the options, but I’d wager that most casual players are pretty ignorant of the full buffet of activities. That isn’t the player’s fault; it’s the fault of the studio for not making a clear cross-referenced, guided list of features available to peruse.

Every MMO should have a “you’ve just hit max level, now what do you do?” guide at the minimum. Official websites and in-game resources should organize and present features in an easy-to-understand fashion. I’m tired of doing this work myself when I feel like a game is being too coy about what it offers — and what’s truly important to pursue vs. what is optional.

Mia DeSanzo (@neschria): Playing older games, I have entered worlds with a baffling array of systems that are hard to get my mind around. Perhaps worse is returning to a game I played extensively in the past only to find out that there are now six kinds of currency, four new advancement tracks, seven new ways to enhance abilities and gear, and a partridge in a pear tree.

I know some games are built from the beginning with systems upon systems (Black Desert, looking at you), but I actually enjoy that kind of needless complexity. I love games that have a lot of different ways to play.

There’s just a difference between accretion over years of expansions and disjointed content additions and layers of game systems built to give different options for play.

I am a bit of a No Man’s Sky fangirl, and while not every addition has been to my taste, I feel like that particular case allows you to have different saves that feel like completely different games.

Sam Kash (@thesamkash): Maybe I’m not thinking about it right, but it does seem like a game can’t have too much. I mean, I might be alone these days, but I always loved the everythingbox games – ones that included big PvE content and stories, PvP with some attention to balance, and all the mess in between. So many games feel like they just want their niche, and none of them hold me at all.

Still, to try to answer the question, I’ll just point to games that have a long vertical progression system, like the WoW games where there’s this long history of so much and so many levels that I just don’t even want to try. I know lots of them have catch-up systems, but it just isn’t the same. Even looking at New World’s new content puts me off when I think about the time I spent not even getting to max level.

So I think my final answer is games that continue to add more levels and more gear as they add content.

Tyler Edwards (blog): I think this ends up being true of every MMO sooner or later, to varying degrees. If you’ve ever tried being a new player in a long-running game, you know what a baffling ordeal it can be to make sense of years’ worth of content and systems.

I’m not even sure there’s much that can be done about it. It’s just kind of something that happens naturally over time — an inherent flaw of the genre. You can try trimming things, but that’s often deeply controversial with longtime players. Every feature is someone’s favourite. I think the best bet is probably for developers to be very careful and mindful of what they add, with a view towards what it will be like to maintain new content and features in the long term. But even that only mitigates the problem rather than solving it.

Every week, join the Massively OP staff for Massively Overthinking column, a multi-writer roundtable in which we discuss the MMO industry topics du jour – and then invite you to join the fray in the comments. Overthinking it is literally the whole point. Your turn!
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